Like the settlers of New France, Elwood Reid has broken new ground.
Reid (The Bridge) is the creator, show-runner, and executive producer of Barkskins. The eight-hour limited series debuts starting at 9/8c Monday, May 25, on National Geographic Channel, with back-to-back episodes running for four consecutive Mondays.
Barkskins, based on the 2016 novel by Annie Proulx, marks NatGeo's entry into fiction-based scripted programming.
The 700-plus page epic tells about a mysterious massacre of settlers in the wilds of 1690s New France that threatens to throw the region into an all-out war.
Set in Wopik, a small settlement in what is now the Canadian province of Quebec, Barkskins weaves the tale of a disparate group of outcasts, rogues, and innocents caught up in a dangerous place and time.
Grabbing the opportunity to work with Proulx and executive director Scott Rudin was a no-brainer for Reid.
“Annie Proulx as a novelist and a writer meant an immense amount to me,” Reid recalled. “Scott Rudin is a producer that I've admired for a very long time. So it was very easy to say yes to a project like that.”
Getting involved with Barkskins was the easy part. Next came assembling the pieces for a successful production.
First up was distilling Proulx's massive novel. Reid admitted that it was a daunting task.
“First of all, you take a deep breath when you get a book that big,” he said. “Then, you toy with different ideas of how to adapt it.”
Reid realized that the book's 300 years of history was too much to cover in an eight-hour series.
“In the first 100 pages, there were a couple of characters and a tone that were extremely interesting to me,” he said. “Once I narrowed my focus, it was very easy to hone in on this very particular time period in North America and find awesome stories to tell there.”
Barkskins is graced with a talented international cast, topped by the critically acclaimed David Thewlis and Academy and Tony Awards winner Marcia Gay Harden.
Reid credited the reputations of Thewlis and Harden for drawing other actors to the project.
“It's like drafting any kind of team,” he explained. “You'd better use your first picks wisely because it dictates who else wants to come play with you.”
Also coming to play were Aneurin Barnard, James Bloor, Christian Cooke, David Wilmot, Thomas M. Wright, Tallulah Haddon, Kaniehtiio (Tiio) Horn, Lily Sullivan, and Zahn McClarnon.
Canadian actress Horn, best known for The Man in the High Castle, loved the camaraderie among the cast.
“It was one of those dream-team experiences,” she reminisced. “If there was no official rehearsal schedule, we would actually get together on our off time and go over lines, discuss the characters' relationships, discuss where we're at, so we were fully prepared when we got to set, and we weren't figuring it out on set.
"Everybody wanted to do justice to all these characters in the storyline, so we put in our all.”
Horn didn't feel pressure despite the all-star cast.
“I felt it raised the bar for me,” she said. “If you're going to be working with such an awesome cast, it will only make you better in what you do.
Horn plays Mari, a half-French, half-Wendat (one of the local indigenous tribes) who is the lover of Thewlis' Claude Trepagny. They have a son together. Their relationship changes with the addition of a Filles Du Roi, a young woman sent from France to be a wife of a settler.
“Mari's sort of split between two worlds, the New World of the settlers who have come over and the original people of the region,” Horn explained.
She and Thewlis worked out the dynamics of the couple's relationship.
Mari's a smart, headstrong woman so what would make her stay with this guy?” Horn said.
“We came to the conclusion that they actually do enjoy each other's company. They make each other laugh. So when the Filles Du Roi comes around, it is actual heartbreak, not just for Mari but for Trepagny, when he realizes what he's doing to Mari and how these actions affect Mari.”
The Barkskins setting has the look of primordial wilderness. How did Reid accomplish that?
He just shot it just where the novel was set in Northern Quebec.
“What a lot of people have been responding to is that the show doesn't look like any other show,” Reid said. “It looks amazing because not a lot of TV shows have shot there.
“The actors, when they got out in the woods, and we were in the middle of nowhere, it helped them get into character and get into the world. My actors were immersed in this world. They were in a village I built in the middle of the woods.”
That isn't to say that isolation didn't have its challenges.
The Wobik town set couldn't be built until after the four feet of snow in March had melted.
Also, the series was shot exclusively outside, with no stages.
“With that comes the bugs, the weather, the snow, the cold, the rain, the mud,” Reid said. “I think it made the show really authentic. But you just had to learn. There were some days when there was going to be a massive lightning storm, and your sets were under three feet of mud, and you couldn't shoot.
“Or the actors were in the bush, and they were being assailed by mosquitoes. I had to pay to have mosquito bites digitally removed from the actors' faces. They were getting eaten alive by insects while in period costumes. The cast really went on a journey with me.”
Horn recalled one particularly memorable lunch with herself, Thewlis, Cooke, and Bloor, all still in period costume.
Horn looked up to see a bug the size of her fist crawling over Thewlis's shoulder. While her male colleagues shrieked, she shooed it away with her tiny clutch.
Thinking the crisis over, they resumed their meal, only to have Thewlis scream “It's on my neck” a half-hour later. The bug had hidden out in his wig.
“It was like pretty deep woods, so those things were expected,” Horn said dryly.
In Reid's mind, any struggles were worthwhile, as he is immensely proud of the finished product.
“It took a lot of effort to build those sets, to create every costume, to find the locations,” he said. “That meticulous attention to detail has paid off on the camera. The camera doesn't lie. I'm proud that I got to write a really weird show set in the woods in a time period you don't see a lot of TV shows set in. That, to me, was exciting.”
Although Barkskins was filmed as a limited series, Reid added there's plenty more material in the novel for additional seasons.
“If you're asking me if there are multiple seasons [of material], there sure are,” he said. “These characters I was just getting go with.”
Barkskins debuts at 9/8c Monday, May 25, with back-to-back episodes over the next four Mondays, on National Geographic Channel.
Come back to TV Fanatic Monday night for a review of the first two episodes.
Dale McGarrigle is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter.